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Never sing on a full stomach

Features |

Wherever opera singer Dame Janet Baker toured, she tells Louise Flind, her voice had two enemies: the common cold and hotel food

Something you really miss when you’re abroad?

I miss England. There’s a lovely feeling arriving over England because you notice the green and think, ‘This is home – this is the way things should look.’

Do you travel light?

When I was working, we used to pack our suitcases very carefully in case one went missing; so I always had an evening dress in Keith’s [her husband, Keith Shelley] suitcase. The music travelled with us.

How did American tours begin?

My agent Emmie Tillett of Ibbs and Tillett was friends with the great Sol Hurok of the Hurok agency and he heard me sing and said, ‘We’re going to put her in the big time.’

Earliest childhood holiday memories?

I was six when war started so it was quite difficult to plan holidays. We used to go for a few days from York – which was my home – to places like Harrogate.

Travelling in the UK?

I did opera in Scotland and Glyndebourne, which meant staying away from home. We stayed all over the place near Glyndebourne – in Brighton, and once in an undertaker’s house outside Lewes.

How long did you tend to stay?

About three months in America – we’d fly over the Pole after Christmas year after year to San Francisco – and there we’d sit in Union Square and put our faces to the sun.

How do you look after your voice when travelling?

Singers have to be as disciplined as athletes and try to avoid the common cold which was very, very difficult, and a pattern of eating – I could never sing on a heavy meal.

Which were your favourite opera houses and concert halls?

The Carnegie Hall, Musikverein in Vienna and the wonderful Snape Maltings in Suffolk. The Festival Hall is absolutely dreadful – very dry. I enjoyed recitals in the Queen Elizabeth Hall but it’s a bit too wide.

Where did you go on your honeymoon?

It was 1957 and we planned our honeymoon around the West Country because I was doing a tour for the Arts Council.

Do you like working away from home?

I loved working – particularly where there was a wonderful church like Bath Abbey, or any of the big cathedrals. The joy of making music in that resonant place…

Do you have a daily routine even when you’re away?

The pattern of a performance day was a 10am rehearsal, then a jolly good lunch and then we would sleep – Keith as well.

Hotel or apartment?

Always stayed in hotels. One of the big disciplines was trying not to put on too much weight – we always did. As soon as we got home, we went straight on to the Complan.

Are you brave with different food abroad?

No – because I don’t want an upset stomach.

Favourite international food?

I like French and Italian food – I like food that I can recognise immediately on my plate.

Best and worst experiences in restaurants when abroad?

We’ve always just enjoyed eating out. We can’t now because Keith can’t sit up for very long – he’s in a wheelchair and he gets very tired. My life’s very circumscribed because I’m a joint carer. He remembers things much more than I do; details and people, which are such a joy. He doesn’t live in the past but he talks about it a lot and it refreshes my memory. Like other elderly people, we talk about the past a lot and enjoy the present because of it.

Have you made friends when you’ve been away?

The Americans are wonderful friends and I miss them.

Biggest headache?

Fatigue and trying to keep my body in tip-top condition in order to support the voice properly.

What is the strangest place you’ve ever slept in – while being away?

In a cell in a Russian hospital. I was ill because of the food on tour with the English Opera Group in 1964; Ben Britten was conducting.

Do you like coming home?

I used to heave a sigh of relief. I had a wonderful career and a wonderful time if you add the music in but what surrounds it, I found difficult.

What’s your opinion of younger performers?

I’m aware as an old person that one has to have confidence in the young. Young musicians of all kinds coming up are incredibly gifted technically – especially the pianists. I think singers are different because they can’t sing from the age of three in the way an instrumentalist can play at at that age. What we had at Glyndebourne, watching the great singers when we were in the chorus, was the most wonderful beginning.

This story was from May 2019 issue. Subscribe Now